It is a sad litany of events all too familiar in an America besotted by violence. A small, quiet community is racked by a brutal murder. When police undertake their investigation it ultimately results in the arrest of members of the community, often young and previously strangers to the criminal justice system. As news of the crime and arrest spread throughout the community, its members are shocked to hear that people who led an otherwise spotless life are now accused of vicious criminal conduct. Shaking their heads in wonderment, they ask how such violence could occur and what that conduct tells us about our society.
JUDGMENT RIDGE: The True Story Behind the Dartmouth Murders, by Dick Lehr and Mitchell Zuckoff, is such a story. It is the recounting of the events surrounding the murder of Half and Susanne Zantop, well-known Dartmouth College professors. Two teenage boys, James Parker and Robert Tulloch, from nearby Chelsea, Vermont were ultimately arrested and convicted of the murders. The facts of the murder, investigation and apprehension are told in a precise and exhaustive narrative by two authors who have immersed themselves in the sordid details of this violent crime.
To read JUDGMENT RIDGE is to be reminded not only of the violence in our society, but also of the random nature of such acts. Six months before the Zantops were murdered, Andrew Patti heard a knock on the door of his summer home near Judgment Ridge. A teenage boy was at the door indicating that he needed help because of car trouble. Patti sensed something was wrong and would neither help the boy nor allow him in the house to use the phone. The teenage boy was Robert Tulloch. Patti's unkindness saved his life. James Parker was waiting to ambush, rob and murder Patti and his 11-year-old-son. Not until the arrests of Parker and Tulloch would Patti understand how close he, rather than the Zantops, had come to being the victim of a brutal homicide.
The teenage murderers had planned for several months to rob and kill in order to obtain funds to finance a trip to Australia. As Parker explained in his confession, legitimate ways of making money were boring and would take too much time. Crime was more exciting. After several unsuccessful attempts, on January 27, 2001, they gained entry to the Zantop residence by posing as students taking an environmental survey. Suddenly, the boys displayed hunting knives purchased via the Internet. They slit their victims' throats and escaped with $340 in cash. In their haste to leave, they left behind pieces of evidence that would ultimately lead to their arrest and conviction.
Most true crime books can be divided into three segments: the crime, the apprehension, and the trial. Unlike Law and Order episodes, authors are not limited to telling their tale in one hour less commercials. Lehr and Zuckoff however had a different dilemma to confront. They could not write about a trial because Tulloch and Parker never went to trial. The authors have more than enough material to tell a chilling and often disturbing story of a crime that leaves the sensible reader with more questions than answers. To some degree the authors, lacking the denouement of a trial, feel compelled to provide the reader with minute details of the crime and the criminals. In this respect, one more edit of the material might have been useful.
This is a sobering and chilling account of a heinous murder and its investigation. The authors, unable to interview Tulloch and Parker, do their best to bring some sense to this tragic act. They have made a worthy effort. Sadly, as in most cases of this nature, they attempt a task that is impossible to achieve.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on September 16, 2003